Can pay, will pay: the

Once, middle-class liberals used to agonise for

ideological reasons about sending their children to fee-paying schools. Today the only question is: Can we afford it? Blake Morrison

reports on the metropolitan drift away from state

education by a generation of parents who - in theory, of course - subscribe to its value

SUCH, SUCH are the joys. My sister, calling from North Yorkshire, had good news. Her daughter, having taken an exam in January, had been offered a place at the local high school, a school which came out well in the last set of league tables (99 per cent of girls achieving five GCSEs or more). We, too, had good news; our daughter, the same age as her cousin, had been offered a place at a south London day school with almost identical league table results. There is just the one difference: whereas my niece's is a state school, my daughter's is an independent; in our south London borough, the state secondary schools do not boast good results at GCSE or A-level. Two of my three children are now in the private sector.

I feel shifty about this, and prefer not to mention it, least of all when I go North where the situation is very different and the attitudes I grew up with remain. Until university, my own education didn't cost my parents a penny. Ten years ago, I would not have imagined forking out for my children's. But though defensive and shame-faced, I'm not in a minority. Most of my friends in the area have begun drifting from state education as well.

Few of these friends - social workers, writers, administrators, artists, musicians, teachers - are affluent. None would think of paying for private health care. All voted Labour or Liberal Democrat in the last election. Most know enough about school league tables to distrust them. But they will not send their children to the secondary schools in my south London borough. Instead, their children are transported to schools several miles away - up the road every morning the kids wait on the pavement for their private buses, like something out of an American movie. North of the river, people I know are fee-paying even earlier, when their children are seven, or five, or three. Others have moved out to leafier suburbs and beyond, where there are selective state schools: education, not jobs or houses, has been the sole reason for moving.

Of course, the vast majority of parents haven't the luxury to pay, feel guilty and wring their hands. Annual fees at London day schools average nearly £5,000, so to educate two children from three to 18 will cost in the region of £150,000, the price of a good house. Grandparents' trust funds, scholarships and assisted places can ease the pressure, but in the insecure workplace of the Nineties, few parents who elect to pay one year can be confident of being able to the next.

The intellectual contortions required to justify advantaging one's own child over other children can be comical, or worse. We have all heard the dinner-party self-justifications: my child is too dim/bright/sensitive/lazy/ creative/passive/insecure to flourish in the state system. There is nothing new in this: parents want the best for their children, and it's natural to fret. But ours does seem to be an age of special anxiety, and when an influential social group - the intelligentsia, or chattering classes - that used to make one kind of choice begins to make another, it must say something larger about the state of the nation, or its capital.

"It's the sin that dare not speak its name," a left-wing historian with a son and daughter at public school told me last week. "I've known dinner parties break up when it's discussed. But I suspect the days of anguishing have gone. If you can afford it, you do it. The dilemma now isn't `Should I pay?' but `How early should I start paying?' "

IT WASN'T always like this. A previous generation of parents who could have afforded to pay for their children's education didn't choose to. Some were beneficiaries of the 1944 Butler Education Act. Most, with varying degrees of scepticism, felt committed to the comprehensive system. Many were adept at playing that system, at getting their children into "good" state schools, meaning schools with a middle-class intake and an inspiring headteacher, such as Holland Park. (Some even performed "midnight conversions" to help their children into high-achieving church schools.) Despite problems, the ideals of equal opportunity and "the neighbourhood school" prevailed. The old order seemed to be changing: no more 11-plus, no more uniforms, no more single-sex nonsense.

Now, in London at least, the mood is one of nostalgia and panic. Fashion, loss of confidence since the teachers' strikes of the mid-Eighties, and ignorance of the present conditions in London state schools have played a part. The Conservative government has created a market in which schools compete and parents are encouraged to shop around. There's little stigma any more about chopping and changing between the sectors. Parents are more aggressive about looking after their own children's interests, rather than serving vaguer meliorist gods. Out of principle or (more often) need, many middle-income, middle-class parents do stick with the London state system. But even they, when their children come to take exams at 11 or 16, often have recourse to private tuition. One way or another, most parents expect to pay something.

Almost none of the opting-out parents I've met cite social factors as influencing their decision. But snobbery sometimes creeps into their self- exculpations. "I don't want my child coming home with a south London accent," said one. A businesswoman I know admits her children's school can be useful for her own networking. "There's this icky feeling at open days," said another, "when you meet other parents and see that what you're doing is buying privilege." A generation of grammar school meritocrats are paying to keep their children in an lite. How much attitudes have changed is illustrated by the case of Stuart - not his real name; like most parents I interviewed, he asked to remain anonymous. Stuart was and still is a committed socialist, and having been unhappy at boarding school had vowed never to educate his children privately. The two boys he had by his first marriage, in the late Sixties, went to a local comprehensive: "It had gone into decline by the end," he says, "but it was basically OK. It would never have occurred to me to pay: to anyone who did, and who tried to justify it, I used to say `Don't give me that snobbish crap'."

In the Eighties Stuart married again and had two girls. Though neither his politics nor his financial position have significantly changed, he decided - "after a long period of denial" - to send them to a fee-paying primary school in north London. "It was exactly the choice I'd ridiculed and reviled in others, and I still feel appalled. But by common consent - and I spent a lot of time talking to school governors and Labour councillors - the choices in Islington were dire. Meanwhile independent primary schools were springing up around me, and locking into the independent secondary schools, and I began to wonder whether it was right to impose my beliefs on my children, if going to a London state school reduced their chances of going on to higher education.

"Guilt plays a huge part. Many parents I know are working enormously long hours, and the feeling is: if I'm neglecting my children like this, at least I owe them a good education."

MUCH of the evidence for the shift attested to by Stuart is anecdotal, but statistics from Isis (the Independent Schools Information Service) show that some 11 per cent of London parents now pay for their children's education (the national figure is 7.4 per cent). In only a quarter of cases have both parents been

privately educated themselves: the rest are "first-time buyers". And whereas the number of places at independent schools in London has, because of physical constraints, shown a comparatively modest 20 per cent rise in the last 10 years (up from 52,827 in 1984 to 61,530 in 1994), demand for these places - so head teachers will tell you, reciting their waiting lists - has increased or held firm despite the recession. Most important, since the late-Eighties, parents are paying for their children earlier, not risking waiting till they are 11 but getting them on the bandwagon at five, or even before.

At Annemount School, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, it's not unknown for parents to turn up with six-month-old babies wanting reassurance that education here will be a passport to a place in a good prep school at seven. The school was bought in 1993 by the teacher Geraldine Tausig, who had already opened one London nursery school and taken over another in the previous four years. Doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, child psychotherapists, musicians, writers, the Annemount parents tend to be "bookish and child- centred", she says. "Parents now like the idea of their children being busy learning from the age of three. Here they get drama, dance, swimming, French and music - a package, in school hours, which saves them trekking about to different lessons."

One of the Annemount parents is the children's writer Jill Murphy, darling of state junior schools, which causes her anxiety on visits there: "I sometimes wonder whether the teachers feel hurt when I tell them where my son goes to school. And as a product of the state system and being a woolly-minded liberal, I don't like what I'm doing. But it's not just the large class sizes that influenced my choice. There's also, in some schools, the lack of structure, the noise level, the nervousness about how much work kids can cope with. One of the reasons I can afford to pay is that the state educated me superbly. Lucky old me - but it seems very unfair on those who don't have the same advantage."

The rise of private nurseries and pre-preps is an important breach of the old ideology: if you pay early, you're more likely to pay later as well. At least five nurseries have opened around Hampstead in the past year, says Geraldine Tausig. She speaks of "a huge demand for places". So does Susan Hay, who has set up several nurseries in London for the under-fives (£150-£190pw for a full-time place). Larger independent schools have also moved into this market, taking children at three or four rather than at five or seven. "Schools want children younger and younger," says Ms Tausig. "It has changed people's thinking." So parents are caught in a vortex of anxiety: a good university place requires a good secondary education, which requires a good primary education, which requires a good nursery education, which means getting the child's name down at birth and starting to pay not long after. In reality, it's much easier to get to university than it was 20 years ago (one in three school-leavers do rather than one in ten), but statistics do little to allay middle-class worry about state secondary schools (drugs, bullying, lack of discipline, etc).

Raised expectations also make liberal parents more critical than they used to be of London primary schools. One I spoke to said his son had 27 teachers in two years; several described the glazed here's-a-pushy- middle-class-parent look that would meet their worries. " `So your son's bored - at least he's happy,' one teacher told us. That's why you end up paying - not for social prestige, muscular Christianity or to turn your child into a leader of men, but just so you feel you've a right to demand value for money. I'd like my children to be people I can talk to when they're grown-up."

Another parent I spoke to, Sheila, is typical of that strange sub-phenomenon, the state schoolteacher who educates her own children privately. A grammar school product, she is married to a lecturer and they live with their two children in a flat - were it not for school fees, they might by now have a house.

"I suppose we were a bit nave: looking back, I see that friends of ours with a bit more nous moved to certain areas because of the good state schools there - we didn't tumble to that. When our son was 10, we trawled the local comprehensives: what I thought I saw there was bright kids being picked on because they weren't the norm. We applied to a couple of independent schools, and when he got a scholarship - which meant a third off the fees - we took that route. We took it again with my daughter two years later, though I did apply to local state schools for her as well and was turned down because she's band one and all the local band one places were taken."

A state schoolteacher going private is not on a par with a Labour MP going private, but it comes close, and Sheila has had awkward moments. "I work in a primary school in a deprived area, and still find it difficult to talk about with colleagues, though some of them do know and in the more middle-class state school where I used to teach most teachers are doing the same as me. I've other friends who've gently reproached me: they think you should stay and change the system, not buck it. All I can say is I don't regret the choice we made, whatever the financial constraints. I suppose the trouble with London is that it does have all these tempting alternatives: if you're in the country, you take the nearest school and that's it."

Though there is evidence that liberal middle-class parents in other cities (from Manchester and Newcastle to Oxford and Canterbury) are also going private, London does seem to be a special case. As well as the plurality of choice, it may be that inner-city gentrification is a factor. The middle classes who have bought houses in, say, Islington, find themselves living back to back with much poorer families - as the middle classes in Leicester, say, rarely do. Ideologically, this can be a source of pleasure and self-congratulation. But if it means their children going to "rough schools" and "falling behind", they tend to move out - or to stay and pay.

Philip O'Hear, head of Acland Burghley comprehensive school in Camden, thinks education in London is becoming dangerously polarised as a result. "If middle-class people are opting out because they feel they're not having their needs met, it means the state system won't cover the full social range and won't have powerful, articulate families to speak up on its behalf. And that means the less privileged children suffer." His own school has comparatively good results and a sought-after catchment area: partly thanks to the efforts of a group of committed, middle-class, left-of-centre parents 15 years ago, it has "come up" rather than "gone down" (it's typical of the new market values in education that schools are always spoken of as if they were lifts in an office high-rise). But though proud of his school's achievements, Mr O'Hear thinks the obsession with academic qualifications is unhealthy: "Schools aren't just about high grades but about learning to relate to a range of people, working in teams and coping with demanding situations. Those are the skills the CBI says are now most important in the workplace, and it may be comprehensives are better at producing them."

Mr O'Hear is right in thinking that nostalgia for an old-fashioned grammar school education is a factor with many parents who go private. But Joan Clanchy, principal of the fee-paying North London Collegiate School for girls (founded 1850; pupils include Stevie Smith, Marie Stopes, Stella Gibbons and Esther Rantzen), is refreshingly satirical about this parental obsession ("it's like sucking at a sore tooth") and says the reality in her school is very different: "The core value of pushing and extending is there, but you can't bring back the silent rows of desks. Children today are used to different ways of learning and concentrating - role play, group work and computers are all part of it. The girls here wouldn't put up with old-style methods: they'd be very bored."

Once North London Collegiate had its biggest intake from state primaries; now it's from prep schools. Like other independent teachers I talked to, Joan Clanchy doesn't gloat at her school's successes so much as mourn the fact that most London children are being denied the education they deserve: "The fees here are £4,500 per annum; £200 of that goes on maintaining our grounds, and the rest on salaries and resources. That's £4,300 per pupil. The head at the nearby comprehensive here, who's doing a terrific job, receives £2,000 per pupil. My teachers aren't paid any more than they would be in the state sector, but they teach only 26 lessons out of a weekly timetable of 40, with at least two rest periods a day. More time to think and prepare means better morale and better teaching: £4,300 is what a good education costs now. The question for any government is: are you prepared to pay it?"

THE bill would be horrendous. But not as horrendous as the cost of the next generation growing up ghettoised and divided, as is beginning to happen. When Tony Blair decided to send his son to the London Oratory School, he found a way to do his best by his child while not strictly breaching Labour Party policy. He offended many people in the party, especially outside London.

But several parents I spoke to, sympathetic to Mr Blair's dilemma, thought that rather than play his decision down, he should make it the basis for an election promise: the same subsidy that goes into grant maintained schools will in future go into every school, because the Labour Party recognises that this is what a good education now costs. It would mean a rise in taxation, but if the current Labour Party is not prepared to raise tax to pay for schools, it is not a Labour Party worth voting for.

"I suppose it's time we outed ourselves," said one parent, "then we might be less apologetic. We're terrified of looking like hypocrites, and `not sacrificing one's kids to ideology' always sounds a bit of a cop-out.

"It would be better to say this: after 16 years of neglect, many of our London state schools, through no fault of the teaching profession, are ill-provided for. This is why I'm paying. But at the next election, I will vote for the party that spends as much on each child in this country as I do on my child. That's the only way you'll stop the middle-class drift away from the state."

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